This article was first published on The New York Times Style Magazine (Singapore) on 7 May 2019.
If women were supposedly meant to take charge of the kitchen, why are there so few female faces in the culinary world?
Across the world, women have long been celebrities in the kitchen, whipping up scrumptious dishes — of soups, rotisserie numbers, pastries and desserts — and fuelling up hungry souls at home (and professional kitchens, too). Yet, in the foray of celebrated male chefs, who front the covers of food magazines or culinary journals, the sparse adulation of female chefs has become increasingly palpable.
Leafing through the pages of history, it is almost as if the culinary world is nothing but a boys’ club. The Time magazine’s “13 Gods of Food” controversy, which featured only four women and none of them were chefs, in 2013 is a testament to the dearth of media coverage on female chefs in the kitchen. While it is gratifying to bear witness to more female chefs voicing out over the years, cultural tastemakers, like food writers and food critics, are often known to diminish or sensationalise the achievements of those few who managed to break the mould.
Diving deep into Singapore’s vibrant hawker culture — where affordable, comfort food is a go-getter, and where heritage and gastronomical wonders coalesce — female figures are as much the trailblazers as their male counterparts. These are women who grew up amid the tight heat of a hawker stall, who gave up their comfortable white-collar jobs to carry on family legacies, and who move the needle to bring sumptuous food to the table.
Speaking to three locally-owned establishments whose kitchens are spearheaded by such female trailblazers, it would not take long for one to be admired by their unabashed furore for preserving their predecessors’ craft.
“The real chefs in life are the women. Look at our childhood, we have always been fed by our mother or grandmothers. No matter how good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant the food is, women are often seen feeding us,” says Tay Mui Lan, the third-generation owner of Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff.
As a teenager, Tay and her sisters would return to the confines of the kitchen at Eunos Crescent after they were dismissed from school, where their mother, Madam Ow Siew Kheng, and grandmother, Madam Lim Sai Hong, were. There, they rendered their assistance and cut their teeth to create the popular short-crust pastry.
“There are many things to do in the kitchen. Potatoes need to be peeled, diced and steamed. Chicken meat had to be fried and added to our homemade curry. Dough needs to be rolled out, filled, and kneaded together,” she explains.
For Tay, her foray into the family business was a conscious and pragmatic decision. Hearing Madam Ow’s contemplation to shut its doors due to manpower shortage eventually spurred her to quit her full-time secretarial position and manage the family business in 2009. 2019 marks her decade-long commitment in the business.
“[Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff] was established in 1992 by my late grandmother. My mother succeeded my grandmother, and I took over from my mother. The recipe we use has yet changed over the last 27 years,” says Tay. “My late grandmother and mother are my inspirations. They had put in so much effort. Since so many people enjoy eating our curry puffs, it would be a waste if we stopped altogether. I don’t want that.”
With influences from the Portuguese empanada, Indian samosa, and British Cornish pastry, curry puffs are no foreign snacks in Singapore. The pastries at Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff is made from two different doughs, which gives them the brand’s signature flaky and layered exterior. Each curry puff is freshly made and fried every day by Tay and Madam Ow. Its flavour range spans across the traditional curry chicken, spicy sardine, and sweet custard to list a few.
At a time when no other staff were hired in the kitchen, the mother and daughter duo used to run the bulk of the kitchen operation themselves. While Tay has hired an extra staff or two over the years, the situation today still hasn’t changed much. The duo still subjects themselves to menial and taxing labour, including cleaning toilets, hoisting 25-kilogram sacks of flour and lugging 16-kilogram tins of oil about. “We do everything. There is no scope in the kitchen. There are no bosses; we are one family. When we work together, we are like a family,” says Tay matter-of-factly.
Recalling a time when the three-generation pastry makers spent in their old kitchens, Tay reveals, “One of us would roll the dough, another one would add the fillings, and finally my grandmother would be the one who kneads the curry puffs together.”
Wistfully, Madam Ow adds, “We chat in the kitchen. We don’t do things quietly. In doing so, we bond as a mother and daughter.”